Bittern--Botaurus stellaris

The bittern Botaurus stellaris belongs to the Family Ardeidae {herons} and the Order Pelicaniformes. They were commonly placed in the Order Grallidae and frequent marshy places and dwell and nest in tall aquatic vegetation {particularly reed beds in the UK}.

they are placed with the herons, yet to the layman there are many differences, such as their appearance, their structure, their habits and basically their whole characters are so very different to that of the herons. Indeed their affinities or points of resemblance ally them more with rails or Gallinules { from Latin gallina -hen }, of the family Rallidae, than any other race. 

Bitterns possess unique mannerisms and haunts and as such they are characteristic of the places they frequent. They shy away from the abodes of man and also his activities. not for this bird are the habitat formed by man { except for reed beds} not merely corn fields and rich meadows, but also woodland. Should the habitat is surrounded by planting the birds will depart. neither are they fond of natural forests, unless, they are intersperced with marshy pools margined by tall aquatic herbage.

The feet of the bird also indicate a bird something intermediate in its haunts between the snipes and the corncrake.  The tarsi are long, the tibiae bare for some distance above the tarsal joints. Indeed the whole structure of the bittern and the way it holds its body almost horizontal indicates a bird that can run very well. The toes are not as long as those of the crake  and longer than those of the snipes, the hind toe in particular are much longer than those of the snipes. the whole design is of a bird that can walk on soft herbage, rather than upon the ground, and yet, the foot is not so much of a wading foot as that of many birds that nest much further from the water than the bitterns. 

Bittern courtesy of Jakob Jilg CC BY-SA 4.0 License

The general characteristics of the Bittern

The bill to the bottom of the gape is about the same length as the head, moderately thick at the base, but compressed or higher than broad. the bill tapers to a very sharp point. The navel grooves are very shallow, nostrils near the base and half closed by membranes.a small portion of the naked skin reaches from the gape to the eye, and the whole bill is extremely firm and hard in its structure.

The legs are long, though not so much in proportion to the size of the birds as those of the herons, but they are stouter, and altogether better formed for walking, the outer toe is connected to the middle one by a membrane which is merely rudimental. The wings are of moderate length, shorter than those of the heron and they are employed much less in their ordinary habits.The tail is also very short and the feathers more closer, more tightly packed than the flocculent feathers of the tail and back of the heron, however, the feathers on the hind part of the head are noticeable giving a straight outline which is not seen in the majority of bird species.

The neck is long, but it is more robust in proportion to its length and in fact looks more robust than it actually is because the feathers on it are long and loose. 

The heron in flight, note the neck is held in a curved position

Photograph courtesy of Steve Hillebrand

The neck is also held differently both on the ground and during flight. When the heron flies, at least in its longer flights, it carries its neck in an S-shaped position and it does not in any circumstances hold its neck in a straight line, unless, when it stands up and raises the general axis of the body into the same position and stretches its wings. when the heron is waiting for its prey close by the banks or in the shallows { for it walks little and uses its wings if it has to move more than a few yards} it holds its neck bent and the shoulders rounded. 

The heron is a neither a shy bird or a bird that readily conceals itself. Indeed it nests in trees, and may, when it is standing in the tree tops, be observed closely. When it feeds in the shallows it does not generally feed where it is concealed with rank herbage. The wings are always held in a position to take flight immediately. Thus wherever there are herons they are in general easy to see and are very common.

Conversely bitterns are not only very rare but they are seldom seen even where they are known to exist, so as one can see, classing the bitterns with the herons, is very misleading to the layman. The different bearing and action of the neck in the two species may well inform us there must be a notable difference in their diet and the way they procure it.

The neck of the bittern, is nearly as long as the body, but when the bittern flies the neck is stretched out, and, when it walks the neck is held upright with the line of the forehead and bill horizontal. When at rest it is in tall herbage on the ground, never in trees, the position of rest is with the neck erect and the bill in line pointing to the zenith.

Booming call of the Bittern

Bitterns tend to fill the air with their booming call in the grey twilight of the evening, however, this only occurs when the air is tranquil or at least when the wind is light.

                       " But the lark's shrill pipe shall come,

                         At the day break from the fallow.

                        And the bittern sounds his drum,

                        Booming from the sedgy shallow"

                                                                { unknown}

The above words may refer to the song of the two species overlapping. The skylark sings before dawn hence the bittern's may still be booming before the daylight eats into the darkness.


The reeds such as the ones behind this Merganser is the natural haunt of the bittern in the UK

Photograph courtesy of the USFWS.

Botaurus stellaris-the European bittern

Now we review the European bittern. the length of the full grown bird is 75cm long with a wingspan of 130cm. The male weighs 1.5kg, the female 1kg. When the bittern takes to flight it is in no way rapid however, the wing beats are strong and it turns very smoothly and gracefully .The migratory flight is high in the sky at night and the bird is silent during this process hence it is seldom ever witnessed.

The plumage is of a warm buffish brown, heavily mottles and marked with black. The markings are of a star -like appearance hence the species name of stellaris. They have rounded wings, a yellow bill, pale green legs and yellow eye. In relation to the size of their body the wings are short the tail very short, neck very long, bill medium length, the legs medium long. 

Breeding and young of the European bittern

The nest depending on the location chosen is merely formed of withered grasses or rushes, placed on a tussock, where it is well concealed, or upon a short stump of an aquatic shrub should one be available or, as generally the case well concealed in tall aquatic herbage.

The eggs , usually four in number, and of a greenish brown colour are incubated by the female for about 25 days. When the chicks hatch they have a scraggly appearance and are covered in sparse down. They fledge at around 50-55 days. When in the vicinity of the nest bitterns are completely silent.The common bittern live at all times solitary outside the breeding season, or, at most, in pairs, never in flocks or even family groups, and as soon as the young are capable, they follow the habit of their parents and are seldom seen with another bird until it is time to pair up and have families of their own.

Other species of bittern include the little bittern B.minutus are birds from the Asiatic rivers and European rivers near the black sea, they are rare visitors to the most southern counties of England in April and May.

The American Bittern B. lentiginosus is native to America, especially the northern regions of the country, although the bird is very migratory. 

Conservation issues European Bittern-Courtesy of the BTO.

Bitterns are quite rare in Britain. In the summer's 2005-2009 there were 72 booming Males. While winter figures are higher with 600 individuals recorded 2010/2011. Because of their habit of concealment and the remoteness of their habitat estimated figures are understandably difficult to obtain.

They are on the Red List of Conservation Concern due to population declines over the last 50 years, and as such are Priority species of Conservation concern, which are being supported by a Species Action Plan.

Previous Conservation Ratings-- 2002-2007 Red List 1996-2001 Red List.

2016 after some conservation successes the Bittern has been moved to the Amber list of conservation concern.

They are Resident breeders in the UK and winter visitors. 

Due to excellent conservation work numbers are slowly increasing in the UK  {2018 ]. 


Reuse of images.

The images on this page may be reused. However, the relevant name of the author must be attributed along with any accompanying license.

This fantastic video is Courtesy of Philip Parsons . Taken at the Slimbridge Wild Fowl and Wetland Trust England.


Update  February 2019

Male bitterns numbered an estimated 188, up from 166 in 2017.

Bitterns UK 2019 update

89 booming bitterns were recorded on RSPB reserves in 2018 that is an increase from the 77 recorded in 2017. A new Record. Good news.

Conservation Status UK-2021

Amber List of conservation concern 

Europe- They are a species of Least concern 

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